There are, according to the World Bank, around 400 million Indians waiting for electricity. The new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has pledged to connect them all within five years and plans to do so with an unprecedented dash for coal…Narendra Modi says 400 million Indians without electricity will be connected, but plans for new coal mines are controversial…
The village of Geer in Madhya Pradesh is about to undergo the simplest of revolutions. After 25 years of being told electricity is coming, it is finally here. “After sunset we can’t do anything so we sit in the darkness. The children cannot study. We go to bed early,” says Chotelal Gupta, who runs the nearest thing Geer has to a shop. It is no more than a cupboard really, selling sweets and biscuits. But in the last few weeks Gupta has started to stock lightbulbs as the villagers wire up their homes. A small crowd of villagers stand around the transformer for the big switch-on. This is India, where no such moment can happen without a few prayers, the breaking of a coconut and the burning of incense. In the absence of a local dignitary they turn to me to do the honours. It reminds me of my wedding; I had no idea what was going on then either.
Almost immediately people rush for Gupta’s home. He has bought an old TV and connected what looks like a saucepan lid on a stick, but it is, I am assured, a satellite dish. The kids are furiously trying to find a signal. They are clearly very bright and the arrival of a mobile signal and the internet will obviously transform their lives before long. Gupta also has plans for an electric pump to irrigate his land. That could make the difference between growing enough rice and lentils to eat and producing enough to sell.
There are, according to the World Bank, around 400 million Indians waiting for electricity. The new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has pledged to connect them all within five years and plans to do so with an unprecedented dash for coal. India has the fifth largest deposits in the world but has not been mining them, so coal-fired power stations import about a third of their supply. The Government has made it clear that has to change, but is being frustrated by a combination of environmental protest, court battles over corruption and the constitutional rights of tribal communities who claim mines threaten their livelihoods.
The villagers living next to the mines see things differently from the mone owners. In Chilika Daad, they are sick and tired of the blasting and the dust. They say the promises they were given of development, investment and jobs were broken and all they have are homes they can’t sell and lives they can’t change. The area is rated the third most polluted place in India due to emissions from the power plants and dust from the coal mines, and everywhere you go people claim their health is being affected by it.
Among the companies trying to deliver Modi’s vision is Mahan Coal, jointly owned by British-registered Essar Energy and Indian corporate giant Hindalco. Chief executive Ramakant Tiwari has spent seven years battling to get permission to begin a vast opencast mine in a section of the Mahan forest. It is one of the last natural forests left in Madhya Pradesh and breathtakingly beautiful. But as we stand on a hill surveying the area Mahan Coal plans to dig, Tiwari insists he will make it even better.
“Do you not feel bad, destroying a forest and turning it into a vast scar on the landscape?” I ask.
“We are not destroying anything. We are just taking the old trees which have become coal and planting new trees for the future,” he insists. Tiwari, who looks and sounds more like a charity worker than a mining boss, sells it as part of the natural cycle of human development. He wants to show me the kind of mine he would build, so we take a drive to a Government-owned site nearby. The area has been dubbed the nation’s energy capital and is home to several mines and power stations supplying the grid in north and central India. As we scramble up the verge from the road and peer over the side, my involuntary response is a startled “wow”. For more than a kilometre in each direction the land is dug out into terraces exposing long seams of black coal.
There are no people to be seen, just vast futuristic machines eating up the earth and carrying it away. A blast half a kilometre away doesn’t just make a frightening noise; the ground shakes and we nearly fall over. All around us are towering mountains of waste, huge brown piles of earth and rock, which Tiwari assures me will one day be thick with trees and vegetation.
The villagers living next to the mines see things differently. In Chilika Daad, they are sick and tired of the blasting and the dust. They say the promises they were given of development, investment and jobs were broken and all they have are homes they can’t sell and lives they can’t change. The area is rated the third most polluted place in India due to emissions from the power plants and dust from the coal mines, and everywhere you go people claim their health is being affected by it.
At the school in Chilika Daad, the headteacher says that “this is no place for children to live”. Her pupils suffer from coughs and breathing problems. Out of 209 pupils, 70 are off sick that day and she warns me not to assume that is normal for poorer parts of India. People want education, she explains, so they only stay away if they have to.
Word of these problems has spread to the tribal communities living around the planned Mahan Coal mine. The villagers are deeply divided between those who want the employment and compensation that a mine could bring and those who want none of it. Mahan Coal is up against determined opposition, with Greenpeace heavily involved in training local leaders to campaign against the mine. Tribal communities have constitutional rights that mean, if they can prove they rely on the land and have a claim on it, they can in theory stop the mine.
In 36C heat and 80 per cent humidity, a group of them walk me through the Mahan forest, gathering food and medicinal plants. The women dash from tree to bush, telling me all about the benefits of each one. “But how can you not want a television and a fridge? Or air conditioning in this heat?”, I ask. The women cackle with amusement.
“Do you not feel the breeze of natural air conditioning? Why do I need a fridge when I can pick what I need to eat fresh every day?” says Phoolmati. “And we have all the entertainment we need here without a television”.
Unlike Gupta, with his makeshift satellite dish and plans for a fridge from which to sell soft drinks, all Phoolmati can visualise is how the mine is going to ruin her life and environment. She is committed to fighting the development at every turn.
Their campaign has been helped by an entirely separate ruling by India’s Supreme Court. It recently dealt the miners a massive blow, throwing out more than 200 coal allocations awarded by previous Governments because of allegations of corruption. That has stopped Mahan Coal in its tracks, with the chief executive admitting: “We cannot say with any degree of certainty about the course of action.” A new process of auctioning off the coal blocks is about to begin and the company will now have to decide whether to bid again for its allocation. They have been told they won’t have to go back to the beginning of the environmental process but they will also know that if they win the auction and pay out once again there is still no guarantee they will be able to go ahead with the mine.
Greenpeace argues the future should be about renewables, including solar energy. That may, in the end, have to be where the Government heads: but for now the Prime Minister’s promise to electrify every village in five years is looking vulnerable.